The Pepys erasure project so far

In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.

I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.

Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.

I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.

With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.

My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!

Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.

Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,”  which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.

The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.

The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.

As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems.  I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.

Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.

My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.

14 Comments


  1. This is so fun, really. I love how you find yourself relaxing within the “rules” as you become more confident and the project finds a voice.

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    1. Oh good! I mean for the poems to be fun above all else. (You are of course one of my main inspirations as a very regular poetry blogger.)

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  2. Oh, so glad you did this! Thank you.

    I prefer the erasure-tool method of presentation, by the by… And I find it interesting that you not only erase the text but over time you begin to “erase” the rules so that they too are sparer and more liberating.

    It’s an interesting mode of “getting away from yourself.” Probably that imaginary sonnet sequence would have provided you with surprise and new directions as well…

    I like variety. You probably knew that already.

    Reply

    1. Erasing the rules — ha! Don’t think I’ll be erasing too many more, though. Maybe someday I will try my hand at poetry in form in a serious way. Probably not sonnets, but I think some of the troubadour forms are due for a revival. Anyway, glad the variety is working for you. (Tonight, something in the Mother Goose vein.)

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  3. You have a real talent for erasure, Dave. The poems you’ve found are terrific. I’ve been doing an erasure project myself and find it a slog. I have a hard time letting my guard down. Do you move along by instinct over the lines, or do you read through the whole and then go back and pick out the words and phrases you want?

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    1. Thanks! I read the Pepys entry first, usually more than once, with a read-through of the extensive reader annotations after the first reading. Also, my first reading tends to be out loud, over Skype with Rachel, and we sometimes discuss what the most interesting words and phrases are. Of course, what works for me may not work for you.

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  4. I’ve been more lurking lately, but I am also enjoying these.

    It’s funny about Pepys and blogging. I discovered Pepys around the time I started blogging in ’05. I had a long commute and my mom loaned me the audio version of Pepys Diary and I listened to it on my way to and from work. It had me looking forward to the time in the car. One of my earlier posts was even about the experience, and then I found Pepys’ blog a couple years later.

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    1. How interesting. Yes, I guess Sam is a natural role model for bloggers, isn’t he?

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  5. I’m working on my first erasure poem now, and came back to reread this post and see again how you’ve been doing it. Thanks both for doing this project, and for sharing these process notes.

    Reply

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